The girl with the parasol

I’m a bit of a film buff – probably not as much as I once was but I love old films, and unsurprisingly Citizen Kane is up there in my list of favourites.

There’s a scene in there which I’ve always loved – it’s between the reporter researching the life of Charles Foster Kane and Mr Bernstein, one of Kane’s business colleagues. Of much more importance than the sparse information that Bernstein gives about Kane, is the following monologue:

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

I used this as the start of a sermon recently (I’m a lay Reader in the Church of England – you might like to take a look  here…) about the importance of memory.  I’m often staggered by the way in which tiny incidents seem to stick in our minds – I’m one of these folks who can barely remember my own phone number, but a tiny event from 40 years ago will often spring in to my thoughts as if it had happened 5 minutes ago.  Maybe it’s the onset of dementia – I don’t know.  But I expect ALL of us have our own ‘girl with the parasol’ –  a person that may have engaged us for but a few moments but that we remember for decades afterwards with such strong memories that they can generate powerful emotions.

I wonder whether these moments are some sort of pivot point in our lives? A point at which we came to a significant fork in the path and had a split second to make a decision. And somehow, our sub-conscious mind, or God’s grace, or the collective unconscious of the world puts a marker in the page of our lives and says ‘Well, you might not have realised it, but THIS moment was very significant”

Would Bernstein’s life have been different had he somehow managed to leap back to shore and catch up with the girl? Could he have come back at the same time over several days to see whether she showed up again? Or does that way lead to obsession?

Or when we have these moments, are we getting some sort of insight in to how important this person would have been to us had a different path been taken prior to that split second?

I have no idea. Maybe our desire for control over our lives stretched backwards in time as well.  Perhaps we look through our life and try to spot those moments when our future would be defined by a few seconds of at the time apparently chance and subtle events. Science Fiction writers are keen to take us to those BIG moments in time and say ‘What if…’ – What if Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt (take a look at Stephen King’s 11/22/63 as an interesting take on this idea) or if Hitler had not invaded Russia? I guess that we can easily see that such events might have a massive impact across the world and on lives, but what about the ‘small stuff’?

I think that it might be the small stuff of our lives – things like the meetings and near misses indicated by our ‘girl with the parasol’ moments – that are often the most influential. Like steering a massive container ship, a small tweak might not seem like much when it happens, but 40 years later a whole life pattern has been changed.

Maybe when we remember those split seconds, we’re getting to see the highlights of our journey.

Just don’t get any ideas about building time machines and fixing things differently – we don’t know where we’ll end up!



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